Note: This is a guest post by Rachelle Crawford of Abundant Life With Less.
I’m not a DIY kind of person. While I’m certainly not afraid to get my hands dirty, attention to detail just isn’t my thing. People who take on home renovation projects themselves amaze me. I’ve got a good friend who tiled her entire shower by herself. You see, there are people who tile, and there are people who pay people to tile. I fall into that second group.
However, back in April 2020, I had to cut my husband’s hair. Talk about attention to detail. I had never cut anyone’s hair prior to then. Well, I did trim my bangs a couple times back in the 90’s. Let’s just say, I learned the hard way that cutting human hair was not the career path for me.
With the world locked down and my husband’s hair too long for comfort, he went ahead and tried to order a set of hair clippers off Amazon. Of course, everyone else was doing the same thing so they were totally sold out. Beard trimmers were the only available option. Fun fact: When these high quality trimmers finally arrived, the box actually read, “Bread Trimmers,” instead of “Beard Trimmers.” I kid you not. Any port in a storm, I guess.
Hopped up on coffee and adrenaline, with only a YouTube degree to rely on, I hesitantly took that first swipe up the back of his head with my bread trimmers. With each successful graze I grew just a little bit more confident… that is, until it came time to switch from trimmers to scissors. It’s surprisingly difficult to use a comb and scissors at the same time. They make it look so easy.
I fumbled quite a bit, stabbed myself more times than an adult wielding scissors should and felt like tossing in the towel. My husband, however, made it very clear, quitting mid haircut wasn’t an option, so I had to figure it out.
It took me far longer than it would have a trained professional, but in the end, it didn’t look too shabby. For the remainder of that weird year, I became the family stylist. With every haircut I got a little faster, grew a little more confident and lost a little less blood.
Decluttering our homes is often a similar experience. Well, hopefully minus the blood loss. We realize our home has grown a little crowded, hesitantly start pruning the excess, and then panic when it starts to get tough. I know this because that’s exactly what happened to me. After just a couple weeks of decluttering my home, I freaked out. “What have I done?” I thought. The space around me was growing uncomfortably sparse and I started to second guess myself.
In a recent, not-so-scientific, Instagram survey, I asked fellow minimalists if they too recall hitting a wall while decluttering. Of those who responded, exactly half of them found themselves overwhelmed during the decluttering process. Of those who hit a wall, 18% opted to toss in the towel entirely. They were just too overwhelmed to continue. But 82% continued to declutter despite the wall. They found a way to press on. I wanted to learn what worked for them.
I asked my Instagram community exactly how they either managed to avoid a head on collision with decluttering fatigue or how they survived it. Here are the top three answers.
1. Take a Break
You’d think it would be common sense, you know, when you’re tired or overwhelmed, to take a break. However, in a culture pushing us into the busy life, we’ve gotten pretty used to hustling until we burn out.
If we want a clutter free home though, we’ve got to play the long game. Slow and steady is far more sustainable than intermittent rage decluttering. Taking regular breaks is the number one way to stay the course.
Those who managed to avoid the wall altogether, decluttered in waves, taking regular breaks or “breathing points” as Megan so beautifully put it. She went on to explain how she got into a nice rhythm. “Each time gets better and better… It’s a good balance of meeting my clutter threshold and making sure the rest of my family feels comfortable.”
Those who hit a wall but kept moving forward recognized when they needed to pause. They took time, a few days to a few weeks, to both enjoy the progress they’d made and spend time doing something they enjoyed. Then they got back to it.
Very few people manage to declutter their homes in one fast, furious, and efficient swoop. It’s a process, an important one. If you feel like quitting, it’s a clear sign that it’s time to rest. Get outside, indulge in a hobby, enjoy your progress, or take an actual nap if you need to. Then start again.
2. Focus on the Benefits
My daughter is currently in the process of learning to ride her bike without training wheels. It’s a whole thing. What I noticed the other day is that she doesn’t look ahead. Instead, she keeps her eyes on the pedals. I don’t blame her. However, balance is next to impossible when you’re looking down at your feet.
The same goes for decluttering our home. It’s hard to make any real progress when we’re focused on what we’re giving up. If we’re going to stay the course, it’s imperative we focus on the benefits. This tip hit home for me because it’s exactly what kept me on track as well. When I focused on the piles, I grew anxious. However, when I focused on what lay ahead, I grew hopeful.
We could spend weeks, a lifetime even, fixating on how much money we spent on all the clothes we’re now donating. If we only focus on that though, we’ll never get any further. If instead, we focus on the people who will benefit from our donation, the money we’ll save by developing better spending habits and the space we are gaining by letting go, decluttering gets a whole lot easier.
Mollie said, “Once I got going, I just didn’t want to stop because the personal impact to the logistics of my life and my mental health were so significant… I saw immediately the daily benefit of less. Then I couldn’t unsee it and I had to tackle the rest of my home.”
It’s easy to lose sight of what we’re after, but we don’t have to stop there. Look up and start focusing on what you’re getting in return. Don’t forget to look behind you from time to time as well. It’s incredibly encouraging to see just how far you’ve come.
3. Declutter in Smaller Waves
It’s so easy, in all the excitement and hopeful anticipation, to bite off more than we can chew. We dive in, gutting cabinets and wreaking havoc, overestimating our energy level while underestimating just how long it’s going to take.
Finding yourself still awake at one in the morning, bagging up piles of old high school t-shirts will only leave you afraid to ever tackle another room in our home. Go big or go home isn’t the only option.
Many of those who stayed the course did so by decluttering in small waves, allowing themselves to build both momentum and confidence. Tenielle said she “decluttered in light layers several times over the last five years, each time getting a little more ruthless. I would have found it too overwhelming to tackle more at once.”
Samantha said, “I never hit a wall because I kept it manageable by doing small manageable goals. Instead of my entire closet in one day, I gave myself a month to slowly declutter my entire closet. If I feel like doing more I can! But I’m never completely overwhelmed by too big a task.”
Those who pressed on despite feeling overwhelmed simply recognized they had taken on a little more than they could handle and course corrected. Instead of quitting, they started setting smaller goals. For example, they’d opt to declutter one cabinet at a time rather than tackling an entire room.
Here are a few more helpful strategies shared by those who pressed on when the going got rough:
- Enlist help from a friend.
- Look for minimalist inspiration on social media.
- Take pictures of special items.
- Make a list of your progress.
- Move your excess stuff into a bedroom or basement, and donate it all after a predetermined amount of time.
- Read minimalism books from different perspectives.
- Reflect on before and after photos.
If you find yourself waist deep in clutter, wondering why you ever thought minimalism was for you, know that you’re not alone. I’ve been there too. As a worry-prone, messy person, I’ve got to say: If I can do this, so can you. If you start small, take regular breaks and keep your eyes on the horizon, one year from now you’ll be looking at a totally different space.
Rachelle Crawford is the author of Messy Minimalism: Realistic Strategies for the Rest of Us. She blogs at Abundant Life With Less where she shares a grace-based approach to living clutter free. For more inspiration follow her on Instagram.